Weekly Hit & Run Archive 2006 May 8-31

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Max Bialystock Democrats

After the 2004 election, Americans for Tax Reform honcho Grover Norquist drove some liberals batty by proposing a way to bring civility back to the capital.

Once the minority of House and Senate are comfortable in their minority status, they will have no problem socializing with the Republicans. Any farmer will tell you that certain animals run around and are unpleasant, but when they've been fixed, then they are happy and sedate. They are contented and cheerful. They don't go around peeing on the furniture and such.

Would you have guessed that Democrats like Tony Coehlo would eventually get on board with this? Well, they kind of have.

Indeed, some Democrats worry that the worst-case scenario may be winning control of Congress by a slim margin, giving them responsibility without real authority. They might serve as a foil to Republicans and President Bush, who would be looking for someone to share the blame. Democrats need a net gain of 6 seats in the Senate, and 15 seats in the House. "The most politically advantageous thing for the Democrats is to pick up 11, 12 seats in the House and 3 or 4 seats in the Senate but let the Republicans continue to be responsible for government," said Tony Coelho, a former House Democratic whip. "We are heading into this period of tremendous deficit, plus all the scandals, plus all the programs that have been cut. This way, they get blamed for everything."

As with everything in American life, this can be best explained by an episode of South Park.

Porking the Homeland

Depressing NYT account of how America's quest for security is no match for the congressional pork engine:

The Department of Homeland Security has invested tens of millions of dollars and countless hours of labor over the last four years on a seemingly simple task: creating a tamperproof identification card for airport, rail and maritime workers.

Yet nearly two years past a planned deadline, production of the card, known as the Transportation Worker Identification Credential, has yet to begin.

Instead, the road to delivering this critical antiterrorism tool has taken detours to locations, companies and groups often linked to Representative Harold Rogers, a Kentucky Republican who is the powerful chairman of the House subcommittee that controls the Homeland Security budget.

It is a route that has benefited Mr. Rogers, creating jobs in his home district and profits for companies that are donors to his political causes. The congressman has also taken 11 trips -- including six to Hawaii -- on the tab of an organization that until this week was to profit from a no-bid contract Mr. Rogers helped arrange. Work has even been set aside for a tiny start-up company in Kentucky that employs John Rogers, the congressman's son.

"Something stinks in Corbin," said Jay M. Meier, senior securities analyst at MJSK Equity Research in Minneapolis, which follows the identification card industry, referring to the Kentucky community of 8,000 that has perhaps benefited the most from Mr. Rogers's interventions. "And it is the sickest example of what is wrong with our homeland security agenda that I can find."

Sick, but not surprising. Reason's March cover-story detailed all the waste, fraud, and abuse that passes for government anti-terror efforts.

MPAA Madness—And Phooey on FedEx

The folks at Slashdot thought it must be a joke, but apparently not--the Motion Picture Association of America has trained a couple of black Labradors named Lucky and Flo to sniff out packages containing...DVDs. From a Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT) press release:

For their first major live test, Lucky and Flo were put to work at FedEx's UK hub at Stansted Airport and were immediately successful in identifying packages and parcels containing DVDs for destinations in the UK.
"This is the first time dogs have been used anywhere in the world to search for counterfeit DVDs and the results were amazing, said Raymond Leinster Director General of FACT. "With the cooperation and assistance of FedEx and Customs we were able to properly test the dogs in a real life situation and prove that they can work in a busy airport environment."
"FedEx was glad to assist in Lucky and Flo's first live test in a working situation. They were amazingly successful at identifying packages containing DVDs, which were opened and checked by HM Customs' representatives. While all were legitimate shipments on the day, our message to anyone thinking about shipping counterfeit DVDs through the FedEx network is simple: you're going to get caught...." said UK Managing Director, Trevor Hoyle.

Since anything and everything flowing through FedEx might by stolen property--and whether it is or not can only be figured through lengthy investigation--following this principle doggedly would mean an end to convenient overnight shipping. At any rate, only the guilty have reason to fear having their packages opened willy-nilly by dog sniff by a private carrier who some of us foolishly might have believed we had reason to trust. I do not, of course, expect such an idea to be pursued avidly in other contexts--nor does it seem possible for them to do it universally at all FedEx shipping points.

But that this even happened once is a good example of how out-of-control is the current mania for digital rights holders' assertion of control over what we choose to do with digital entertainment items we purchase and presumably then own. I doubt a consumer's contract asserting that the upon purchasing a DVD, shipping it anywhere means you agree to have a representative of FACT open your mail would find many eager signers.

Aunt Sadie's "Terrorist Activity"

Remember these ads?

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy spent more than $3 million for two TV ads during Sunday's Super Bowl. One ad asked viewers: "Where do terrorists get their money?" The answer: "If you buy drugs, some of it might come from you."

According to Vice President Cheney, the government is not interested in phone calls to your "Aunt Sadie." (It's so narcissistic to think the government cares about your personal life!) Does that still hold when I call Aunt Sadie to score some meth?

Ron Bailey calls those ads "full of crap" here.

With the Proper Breeding Techniques and a Ratio of Ten Females to Each Male...

Here's a fun Friday video creep-out: FOX News anchor John Gibson tells white people to get serious about procreation before the Mes'kins and Arabs take over. He boosts Russia's proposed "cash for babies" plan, which is the kind of policy that always turns out well.

Maybe the Dingoes Ate Your Toad

This story about toad-licking dogs in Australia is amusing and may even be true, but it raises a question: Don't cane toads secrete their psychoactive toxin to discourage predators? Or rather, doesn't this trait persist because it makes toads that have it less prone to being eaten and therefore more likely to have lots of offspring? If predators actually enjoy the toxin, what's the point (evolutionarily speaking)? Does the toxin only repel predators native to Australia (so dingoes don't like it, but Irish setters do)? Or are the toads so much fun to have around that predators avoid eating them?

Update: It turns out the cane toads are not native to Australia either.

Mining Their Own Business

Yesterday, in response to USA Today's story about the NSA's phone record collection, President Bush said: "We're not mining or trolling through the personal lives of innocent Americans. Our efforts are focused on links to al Qaeda and their known affiliates."

Depending on how one defines mining, trolling, and personal lives, that may or may not be true. By USA Today's account, the NSA "is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity," which sounds like what is usually described as "data mining," a la John Poindexter's Total Information Awareness project. But at the very least Bush seems to be promising that the government isn't using the database to track phone calls to pot dealers, bookies, or call girl services. Even if he doesn't consider people who make such calls "innocent Americans," the terrorist nexus would be hard to show.

Yet USA Today reported that "NSA told Qwest that other government agencies, including the FBI, CIA and DEA, also might have access to the database." Bush's assurance could be reconciled with the paper's account if the database is currently being used to track terrorists but might at some point be used for other purposes. Likewise, Bush may have been completely truthful in saying "the government does not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval." But given his justification for the NSA's warrantless surveillance of international communications involving people on U.S. soil, that could change any day. Last month, when asked if the president has the power to authorize warrantless surveillance of purely domestic calls and e-mail messages, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said, "I'm not going to rule it out."

So one problem with polls indicating that most Americans are perfectly OK with all this is that they should be asking not only how people feel about what the adminstration has done so far (or what it is has admitted to doing so far) but how they feel about what it or future administrations could do based on Bush's sweeping assertion of unchecked executive power. If the government had sought court approval or statutory authority for the sort of (presumably automated) data analysis the NSA is doing, it would not be such a big deal. If the executive branch could be trusted to use the data only for the limited purposes suggested by Bush's comments, it would not be such a big deal. But since neither is the case, it is a big deal.

I'd like to see a poll that asks, "Do you think the president should have the power to do whatever he wants to fight terrorism, no matter what Congress or the courts say?" Or maybe I wouldn't. I'm a little worried about what the answer would be.

Catholic Schools Fire Teacher Over IVF Baby

French teacher Kelly Romenesko was fired by two Roman Catholic schools one month after she became pregnant using in vitro fertilization. This is a big no-no in Catholic doctrine which states the only non-sinful way to give birth to new believers is by conventional means practiced between married men and women. She is now suing for back wages on the grounds that the schools violated Wisconsin's employment anti-discrimination regulations.

While I strongly sympathize with her plight, Romenesko did sign a contract promising that she would act in accordance with Caltholic doctrine. Consequently, I think that the schools have the right to fire her on the grounds that she breached her contract and the courts should throw her case out. Disturbingly, she claims that other people involved with schools did not suffer simiiliar consequences when they resorted to IVF. If true, I hope that the school officials remember that Dante consigned hypocrites to the 8th Circle of Hell condemning them to walk in lead-lined cloaks for eternity. Meanwhile Romenesko is doing what Americans have done for centuries when they don't like a particular denomination's doctrines--she's going to another church--in this case a Lutheran one.

"Everyone's Blogging!" "Everyone?" "Everyone."

The Los Angeles Police Department has an official blog. It only started yesterday and already has eight posts, including an illuminating discussion of how Los Angeles had been for two decades, but is no longer, misusing federal Universal Crime Report standards by classifying all domestic violence crimes in a different category than was the rest of the nation.

L.A. has now changed back to national practice. This has made for an apparent reduction here in "Part One" crimes under federal standards, which elsewhere always meant, and now mean in L.A. as well, "An attack for the purpose of inflicting severe or aggravated bodily injury, usually accompanied by the use of a weapon or means likely to produce death or great bodily injury." But even factoring out this change in reporting, the LAPD is still proud that,

In 2004, we achieved a 13.6% reduction in violent crime and a 10.5% reduction in Part One crimes with no changes in how crime was reported from 2003. In 2005, we reduced violent crime by over 11,000 incidents and...achieved a significant crime reduction of well over 10%. Year to date for 2006, we are at a 11.9% reduction in Part One crime.

So far, the LAPD's permalink list includes only other law enforcement and fire-fighting resources, but how about some love for L.A.'s only locally-based political and cultural magazine?

Science Panel Coerced Into Including Supporters of Abstinence-Only Sex Ed

Conservative politics and science are at loggerheads once again, according to the Seattle Times: Indiana Republican Congressman Mark Souder objected that a scientific panel at the Centers' for Disease Control National STD Prevention Conference did not have advocates for abstinence only education on it. The Seattle Times reports:

Researchers organizing a federal panel on sexually transmitted disease say an agency allowed a conservative congressman to include two abstinence-only proponents, bypassing the scientific-approval process.

Indiana Rep. Mark Souder, a Republican who chairs the House subcommittee on drug policy, questioned the balance of the original panel, which focused on the failure of abstinence-until-marriage programs.

In an e-mail to Health and Human Services officials, his office asked if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was "clear about the controversial nature of this session and its obvious anti-abstinence objective?"

So the CDC duly rolled over and invited two abstinence-only advocates to participate and the Feds even paid their way while other panelists had to cover their own expenses.

The Seattle Times quotes William Smith, director for public policy for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. as asking, "We've spent $1.2 billion over a 25-year period on abstinence-only programs. Shouldn't we have one study that shows that they work?"

That's a very good question.

Whole thing here.

I'll Take Malkin's Check, Too

Peter Swire and Judd Legum look at the Stored Communications Act and ponder the possibility that, with the exception of some Qwest-lovin' islamofascists, we're all entitled to a fat check:

The penalty for violating the Stored Communications Act is $1000 per individual violation. Section 2707 of the Stored Communications Act gives a private right of action to any telephone customer "aggrieved by any violation." If the phone company acted with a "knowing or intentional state of mind," then the customer wins actual harm, attorney's fees, and "in no case shall a person entitled to recover receive less than the sum of $1,000."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is already suing AT&T for cooperating with the NSA's secret wiretapping programs; the Department of Justice claims that such matters are, you know, secret, and wants the case dismissed.

Why Can't You Be a Good Telephone Company Like Your Competitors?

Today's New York Times presents dueling experts opining on the legality of the NSA's phone call database:

Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, said, "If they don't get a court order, it's a crime." She said that while the F.B.I. might be able to get access to phone collection databases by using an administrative subpoena, her reading of federal law was that the N.S.A. would be banned from doing so without court approval.

But another expert on the law of electronic surveillance, Kenneth C. Bass III, said that if access to the call database was granted in response to a national security letter issued by the government, "it would probably not be illegal, but it would be very troubling."

As the Bush administration's defenders would be quick to note, the balance here is a little lopsided: Surely the Times could have found an expert who would have pronounced the data collection both legal and untroubling. But what struck me was the lingering doubt about whether the government presented an administrative subpoena, as opposed to a court order, when it asked for the phone records. Judging from USA Today's account, the NSA simply asked for the phone companies' cooperation. When Qwest declined, the government did not demand that the company comply under penalty of law; instead it "put pressure on Qwest":

NSA representatives pointedly told Qwest that it was the lone holdout among the big telecommunications companies. It also tried appealing to Qwest's patriotic side: In one meeting, an NSA representative suggested that Qwest's refusal to contribute to the database could compromise national security, one person recalled. ...In addition, the agency suggested that Qwest's foot-dragging might affect its ability to get future classified work with the government.

If the government had presented Qwest with a national security letter, it seems unlikely the company would have said no to begin with. Aside from the possibility of legal penalties for failing to comply (which would have required court action, something the administration wanted to avoid), an administrative subpoena would have given Qwest the legal cover it wanted under the Communications Act, which says phone companies may release customers' records without their permission if legally required to do so. It seems clear the NSA was working outside the usual legal procedures, even those designed for secret national security investigations.

Nigeria Pipeline Disaster 2006

For whatever reason, the instability of Nigeria - one of the world's biggest oil producers, and by some distance the biggest producer in Africa - never gets the same attention as instability in the Middle East or Latin America. Perhaps this will change that. There are pipeline disasters in Nigeria all the time, but this one is impacting an already sky-high oil price.

Survey Says: Let's Swap Freedom for Safety (Or Illusion of Same)

Update: For an earlier and more extensive discussion of this very poll, go to Dave Weigel's post here.

According to a new Wash Post/ABC News poll, about two-thirds of Americans agree that it "is more important right now...for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy"... than for the goverment "for the federal government not to intrude on personal privacy, even if that limits its ability to investigate possible terrorist threats."

The good news: Back in June 2002, almost 80 percent of Americans felt that way. So the percentage is receding as time goes on.

The bad news: Sixty-three percent don't have a problem with the NSA phone surveillance program. And 66 percent wouldn't be bothered to learn that the NSA has recorded their calls. Because, of course, as with all other goverment programs, this one will stay narrowly focused on its stated goal and not expand in other ways and directions (such as, say, to drug interdiction, because we know terrorism is really a front for drug trafficking, right?).

Poll results here.

And let's not automatically buy in to the embedded equation in the first poll question listed above: that somehow rule-of-law procedures keep the government from being able to get the bad guys. If the Moussaoui trial should have taught us anything, it was that the FBI and other elements of the U.S. law enforcement industry had what they needed to stop the 9/11 attacks. As Jeff A. Taylor wrote, it wasn't procedural roadblocks that let the killers pull off mass murder, but something far less sexy: "Dull, common, gross incompetence is again at the heart of a deadly government cluster-hump." Read "How the FBI Let 9/11 Happen" here.

316 Spying Fans Can't Be Wrong!

The Washington Post, whose editors surely had no problem being scooped by USA Today, conducted an overnight poll and found a nearly 2/3 majority in favor of the NSA collecting American phone records. Here was the wording of the question:

It's been reported that the National Security Agency has been collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans. It then analyzes calling patterns in an effort to identify possible terrorism suspects, without listening to or recording the conversations. Would you consider this an acceptable or unacceptable way for the federal government to investigate terrorism? Do you feel that way strongly or somewhat?

According to the WaPo the timing and sampling of the survey might have produced unreliable results.

A total of 502 randomly selected adults were interviewed Thursday night for this survey. Margin of sampling error is five percentage points for the overall results. The practical difficulties of doing a survey in a single night represents another potential source of error.

Not to pick on her again, but well-regarded polling expert Michelle Malkin saw this and claimed victory for civil liberties restrictionists everywhere.

Message to the MSM from Americans with their heads screwed on straight:

We're not scared.

Begging the government to tap phones and keep a database on every American to save us from the swarming Islamofascists: Bravery in action.

Kidding aside, the debate over this story will depend a great deal on whatever polling comes out. Before this revelation, Republicans were planning to use the NSA spying issue against Democrats in the midterm elections - it was more popular than the president, after all.

(Note: Comments on last night's post included some crude language directed at Mrs. Malkin. That's completely unacceptable. And is it really so hard to shred these arguments without getting personal?)

Epitaph for Freedom: "If it's for the security of the country, it's OK with me."

From a Boston Globe story about reaction to continuing revelations about the extent and nature of the NSA wiretapping program:

Added William MacKenzie, a Verizon customer from Taunton: ''I have nothing to hide, so I don't have a problem with it. If it's for the security of the country, it's OK with me."

Those interviewed yesterday overwhelmingly said the possibility of phone companies handing over records to the government didn't alarm them and wouldn't make them walk away from any of the companies. Telecommunications giants Verizon Communications, AT&T Corp., and BellSouth Corp., according to a story first published in USA Today, agreed to share customer information with the NSA. One company, Qwest Corp., however, refused to cooperate.

More here.

I'm reminded in such moments of the old Ben Franklin quote about trading liberty for "temporary safety" and more about how something Fox News legal analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano told Reason a couple of years back:

No one--no lawyer, judge, or historian--can point to a single incident in American history where national security was impaired because someone insisted on their right to free speech or their right to privacy or their right to due process.

Whole interview here.

Flashback time: Guarding the Home Front: Will civil liberties be a casualty in the War on Terrorism?, a symposium from the December 2001 ish of Reason.

What price Safety?: Security and freedom in an age of fear, a special section from the October 2002 ish of Reason.

McPaper and Osama, Sittin' in a Tree

Some of the dogged supporters of warrantless government surveillance have rushed in to defend the NSA phone call database program. It's more than could have been expected from their takes on the first iteration of this story - the revelation, six months back, that the NSA was tapping international calls. At the time, commentator/novelist Michelle Malkin raged against "civil liberties Chicken Littles" who thought warrantless wiretapping was a big deal or something.

Those who actually read the piece will note that the paper must grudgingly acknowledge that it is talking about the NSA's monitoring of international communications (e-mails, cellphone calls, etc.) only; the agency still seeks warrants to monitor entirely domestic communications.

It turns out that this isn't 100% true - the NSA isn't seeking warrants as it assembles "a database of every call ever made" in the United States. Malkin has an answer for that, too.

Translation: NSA--gasp!--is doing its job.

Not to pick on Malkin. Her take is fairly representative of civil liberties restrictionists in the media at large, and her blog provides links to some similar takes on the story. Here's AJ Strata, upon learning that the telecom Qwest refused to go in on the data mining because the government wasn't providing warrants:

USA Today just tipped off the terrorist how to avoid detection and put the people in Qwest's areas in danger because now it is known those areas have the least protection and should be targeted! What are these people THINKING! Someone needs to go to jail.

Let's assume this isn't a completely nutty reading of the situation. Wouldn't it be a huge break in the War on Terror if terrorists started clustering in the areas serviced by Qwest? Assuming they're all dumb enough to use land lines and not change cell phones or phone cards or anything (these are the goofballs who forget that the government taps phones unless the New York Times reminds them, remember), they'll be constricted to one part of the country and easily targeted by our intelligence agencies. It's the flypaper strategy gone fiber-optic!

Reminder: L.A. Press Club Debate! Tonight! Cartoons! Muslim Rage! Free Expression! Doherty! Welch!

I'm debatin', our much-missed former associate editor Matt Welch is moderatin', and we'll be talking about cartoon hatin' (yes, famous Danish Mohammed cartoon imbroglio) tonight at an L.A. Press Club-sponsored debate panel. That's tonight, Thursday, May 11, at 7:30 p.m., in the L.A. Press Club's headquarters at 4773 Hollywood Blvd., with a reception beginning at 6:30. They are charging non-members $10 at the door--totally worth it, I assure you. They do desire an RSVP to: rsvp@lapressclub.org.

Also on the panel are Eddie Tabash, Chair of Center For Inquiry-West, constitutional lawyer, and chair of the national legal committee of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Edina Lekovic, communications director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (www.mpac.org).

In the height of self-referentiality, more details in my Hit and Run post from yesterday.

Everything You Know is Wrong

John Stossel's new book, Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity: Get Out the Shovel -- Why Everything You Know Is Wrong, is now out!

Pick up a copy today at LFB.com (or at Amazon).

ABC's 20/20 features the book for an hour tomorrow night.

Also, check out this list of events to see if Stossel is coming to your area.

And no mention of John Stossel is complete without links to his famous interview in Reason here, and his Reason article, "Confessions of a Welfare Queen," here.

Reefer Madness Museum

I'm not sure how long it's been around or why I never came across it before, but the Reefer Madness Museum, a quirky collection of anti-pot images and text from newspapers, magazines, schoolbooks, comic books, paperback novels, and movies, is well worth a visit. The site focuses on the decades just before and after the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, illuminating the fears underlying cannabis prohibition. Some of the material, such as the 1937 movie Reefer Madness and Federal Bureau of Narcotics Director Harry Anslinger's 1937 American Magazine article "Marihuana: Assassin of Youth," is familiar, but there are plenty of weird cultural artifacts I'd never seen before, such as the 1949 Green Hornet issue featuring "The Case of the Marijuana Racket" and a 1940 editorial cartoon from an Indiana newspaper whose message the site sums up this way: "Marihuana turns Mexicans into Nazis." The site also sifts through the contents of Anslinger's "Gore File"--accounts of violent and frequently gruesome crimes he attributed to marijuana--and tries to figure out which cases were invented from whole cloth, which were real crimes with a fictional marijuana nexus, and which were real crimes involving real pot smokers where marijuana's causal role was simply assumed.

How Long Can a Good Thing Last?

Over at the Boston Phoenix, Mike Miliard asks if YouTube and other free-video sites are doomed to go the way of Napster. His conclusions aren't too gloomy. But I guess it's hard to get more depressing than an unsold sheaf of free Napster cards collecting mold next to the MP3 player display at any of America's Target stores.

Tammany HUD

If you haven't been following the controversy over HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson's apparent political screwing-over of a grant applicant, GovExec has the scoop. It's not clear whether Jackson was joking (in which case he's a schmuck) or dead serious (in which case he should become former HUD Secretary Jackson).

The Unintended Consequences of Immigration Reform

Last Sunday, Reason Contributing Editor and SF Chron reporter Carolyn Lochhead published an absolutely invaluable piece on the unintended consequences of past efforts at immigration reform. Anyone interested in immigration issues will find this story a treasure-trove of historical information and thoughtful analysis. Snippets:

"The way we teach students is we say, in general, the unintended consequences of immigration reforms are more important than the intended consequences," said Philip Martin, a farm immigration expert at UC Davis....

Many experts believe that the current pattern of illegal immigration from Mexico and Central America was a consequence of the 1986 law's border tightening -- followed by a tougher crackdown in 1996 that built fences in San Diego and El Paso.

"The perverse effect has been to dramatically lower return migration out of the country," said Douglas S. Massey, a Princeton University sociologist and co-director of the Mexican Migration Project, a longitudinal survey of more than 18,000 migrants, the largest of its kind. "So we've transformed what was before 1986 a circular flow of workers into an increasingly settled population of families. We have actually accelerated the rate of undocumented population growth in the United States and shifted it from a relatively less costly population of male workers into a much more costly population of families."

The problem, he said, is that by making border crossing "very risky and unpleasant and increasingly expensive, you prolong the length of the trips, you reduce the probability of return migration, and you make it more likely that migrants ... just hunker down and stay."

The rate of migration from Mexico has actually stayed constant for the last two decades, Massey found. But the rate of return has fallen by half, from 50 percent to 25 percent....

"I don't know a single poll going back to the 1930s that's indicated the public wants more immigrants to come in as opposed to fewer," said [David] Reimers, the historian.

Defiance of public opinion is a striking constant of immigration policy, long fascinating political scientists. Major expansions were often achieved through unorthodox alliances joining business, ethnic groups, free-market think tanks and churches.

Whole thing here.

Entitlement Reform Cometh Like a Thief in the Night

Reason contributing editor Brink Lindsey has some wise and hopeful thoughts over at the Cato blog about how the age of out-of-control entitlements can, will, and must come to an end. An excerpt:

The nineties offered what in retrospect were optimal conditions for restructuring America's entitlement commitments and thereby winning huge victories for good policy and limited government. But...since when did countries ever make major systemic reforms at the optimal time? Over the past generation, we have seen bold moves around the world to unwind overreaching government and install more market-friendly policies. And almost without exception, those moves have occurred, not when favorable conditions permitted sweeping changes with a minimum of short-term pain and dislocation, but when countries had their backs against the wall.....

So while it's disappointing, it's not terribly surprising that we have thus far failed to face up to the fiscal unsustainability of our existing entitlement commitments. We have opted for delay because delay has been the path of least resistance, but it will not remain so indefinitely. At some point, the day of reckoning will arrive, and we will face an unavoidable choice: pay to keep the promises we have made with huge tax increases, or repudiate those promises and restructure the programs that made them. It is entirely possible that, when the time comes, we will end up choosing something much closer to the former than the latter......But I don't think it's inevitable. Indeed, there are sound, non-wishful-thinking reasons for believing that the limited-government side has a fighting chance.

He goes on to detail those reasons--in very quick summation, that we have been successful in keeping government spending as share of GDP relatively stable, and other countries, and ourselves, have succeeded politically in backing down on existing entitlement promises--but you should read the whole thing.

Oooh! Aren't the Democrats Scary, Boys and Girls?

Newsweek's Howard Fineman reports on Karl Rove's forward-looking free-market agenda for the midterm elections - make the Democrats scare the crap out of you.

The way I read the recent moves of Karl Rove & Co., they are preparing to wage war the only way open to them: not by touting George Bush, Lord knows, but by waging a national campaign to paint a nightmarish picture of what a Democratic Congress would look like, and to portray that possibility, in turn, as prelude to the even more nightmarish scenario: the return of a Democrat (Hillary) to the White House.

Rather than defend Bush, Rove will seek to rally the Republicans' conservative grass roots by painting Democrats as the party of tax increases, gay marriage, secularism and military weakness. That's where the national message money is going to be spent.

The liberal blogger Digby basically nails this: "Can someone please tell me how this differs from any Republican campaign of the last 25 years? Bush was at 70% in the last mid-term and the whole campaign was about how Democrats like Tom Daschle and Max Cleland were in cahoots with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein."

But this strategy definitely represents some panic and retrenchment in Republican ranks. They started off the second Bush term labeling Democrats the "party of no" - a collection of ragtag girly-men (and girly-girls) who were obstructing the terrific agendas of Denny Hastert and Bill Frist. (Conservatives apparently liked this slogan enough to google-bomb it. See what comes up when you search "party of no.") That line of attack might have helped scare the Democrats out of blocking John Roberts and Sam Alito, but as closer to 70% of the country turned against Bush, it stopped making sense.

Not that this strategy is so brilliant. It seems weighed down by the beltway-centric mentality that's sent Republicans further and further out of touch since they took power 11 years ago. A lot of the plan rests on making radical Democrats like John Conyers into household names. Everyone in DC knows that Conyers is a bitter loon who wants to pull a Neil Young on Bush-Cheney-etc - soon, so will those rubes in the flyover states! But this is the kind of stuff Democrats tried with Tom DeLay when he became majority leader in 2002. It went nowhere for years - DeLay connections didn't hurt Republicans at all in 2004. Most voters didn't watch "Crossfire" or read The New Republic and they didn't care who DeLay was. The chances of turning John Conyers into a Goldstein with only six months of PR are probably even slimmer. (They might get somewhere with Cynthia McKinney, though.)

If Rove's strategy works, it will be because the Democrats, once again, flee in terror from their own shadows. If a flag burning amendment comes up, they'll grimace and vote for it. If a gay marriage ban comes up, they'll grimace and vote for it. They'll match the Rovian "rev up our base" strategy with a Terrence Howard in "Crash" strategy. That's probably well underway as we speak.

Qwest's Questions

On the face of it, the NSA's dragnet of domestic phone call records violates the Communications Act, which prohibits phone companies from giving out such information without the customer's permission or a legal requirement. As the Congressional Research Service put it in a recent report, "telecommunications carriers are subject to clear and unambiguous obligations to guard the confidentiality of CPNI [customer proprietary network information] and to ensure that it is not disclosed to third parties without customer approval or as required by law."

Violating this law seems to have been the main concern of Qwest, the one company that refused to participate in the secret program. USA Today reports that Qwest officials asked the NSA to clear its data collection with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, or at least get an opinion from the Justice Department certifying that the program was legal. The NSA refused, saying the court and the attorney general might not agree the program was legal.

The administration could argue (if it decided to acknowledge the program's existence) that the information collected and analyzed by the NSA does not qualify as "customer proprietary network information" (defined, per CRS, as "personally identifiable information derived from a customer's relationship with a telephone company") because it does not include names and addresses. But as USA Today notes, "the phone numbers the NSA collects can easily be cross-checked with other databases to obtain that information."

Hence the need for argument #2: Congress unwittingly amended the Communications Act when it authorized the use of military force against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. And if you don't buy that, there's always the president's fallback position: because I said so. If Bush has inherent constitutional authority to override the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, I guess he has inherent constitutional authority to override the Communications Act.

Bill Lowery's Disorderly Orderly

The Cunningham scandal spreads:

Federal prosecutors have begun an investigation into Rep. Jerry Lewis, the Californian who chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee, government officials and others said, signaling the spread of a San Diego corruption probe.

The U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles has issued subpoenas in an investigation into the relationship between Lewis (R-Redlands) and a Washington lobbyist linked to disgraced former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe), three people familiar with the investigation said.

The investigation is part of an expanding federal probe stemming from Cunningham's conviction for accepting $2.4 million in bribes and favors from defense contractors, according to the three sources.

It is not clear where the investigation is headed or what evidence the government has. But the probe suggests that investigators are looking past Cunningham to other legislators and, perhaps, the "earmarking" system that members of Congress use to allocate funds.

Joshua Micah Marshall has more on Lewis and Cunningham.

Fishy ≠ Vindictive

A year ago I mentioned an extraordinary decision by a federal judge in Indiana who threw out the money laundering conviction of defense attorney Jerry Jarrett after concluding that the government had vindictively prosecuted him as payback for his effective representation of a physician accused of prescribing narcotics to addicts. On Tuesday the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit overturned that decision, reinstating Jarrett's conviction. "A claim of vindictive prosecution is extremely difficult to prove," the court noted. "While the district court was troubled by what it regarded as various suspicious circumstances surrounding Jarrett's indictment, suspicion is not proof, and we do not find in these events the clear and objective evidence needed to establish vindictive prosecution."

Maybe not; the evidence against the government, which waited four years to bring charges against Jarrett, is mainly circumstantial. But the appeals court's summary of the evidence against Jarrett shows he was indicted and convicted based purely on the say-so of two drug-dealer clients who were proven liars with every motive to lie in this particular case. The crucial issue was whether Jarrett knew that money he handled for his clients came from drug sales. He said they told him "the money came from gambling winnings, selling cars, and rehabbing houses." Jarrett's account may or may not be true, but it's not so transparently false as to erase reasonable doubt, unless you assume that anyone who represents drug offenders must be a shady character.

[via Drug Law Blog]

Is It Time to Put a Fork in Howard Dean?

Isn't it about time that the folks in the Dem Party send Howard Dean to Oklahoma for some tattoo-filled R&R? A little birdy tells us that the Vermont Screamer recently appeared on The 700 Club to denounce gay marriagel. Or, same thing, tells Pat Robertson's faithful that, HBO's Big Love and the official Democratic Party Platform be damned, marriage can only happen between one man and one woman at a time.

From the Washingtion Blade:

"The Democratic Party platform from 2004 says marriage is between a man and a woman," Dean said May 10 during a "700 Club" program hosted by conservative Christian leader Pat Robertson on his Christian Broadcasting Network.

That statement contradicts the Democratic National Committee's official stance, which was adopted in 2004.

"We support full inclusion of gay and lesbian families in the life of our nation and seek equal responsibilities, benefits, and protections for these families," the platform says.

More here.

Note that the language from the platform leaves wriggle room for nervous Dems to deny that they want "marriage" for gays and lesbians. And note that most if not all major Dem leaders--Gore, Hillary Clinton, Kerry (god, is he even still alive?)--have all huffed and puffed on the subject and come out against gay marriage.

I do not particularly care about partisan politics and I have never voted for a winning political candidate at any level (the closest I came was probably in second or third grade, when my favored candidate almost won the contest to collect mission money from my fellow Catholic schoolers). But can the Dems at least offer a unique selling proposition to the Republicans by unabashedly embracing gay marriage? I can't imagine it would hurt them and making a principled case for extending the matrimonial franchise to gays and lesbians might earn them some respect from their opponents (not to mention their own members).

The Robert Nozick Pages: A Bleg

I've decided that there ought to be some kind of online clearing house devoted to the late Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick—best known to libertarians as the author of Anarchy, State and Utopia—and in the interests of moving from ought to is, I've decided to take on the task of building it.

The easy (if somewhat time consuming) part is rounding up links to material that's already out there on the Web: Articles and talks by Nozick, reviews of his books, critical scholarship, links to books by or about him, etc. The trickier bit—and the one I'm hoping the distributed intelligence of the Reason community can help me with—is finding material that's not currently available in any digital form and putting it online in one convenient place. By that I mean articles that appeared in old and possibly defunct publications; transcripts or recordings (perhaps even videos?) of speeches or interviews by or about Nozick; old photographs; anecdotes and recollections from people who knew or met him; and maybe other things that are out there but that I haven't thought of yet.

So here's the bleg part: If you think you might have something that fits the bill, or even know of the existence of something that fits the bill, I'd love it if you could drop a comment here or shoot me an e-mail. And if you know someone who's likely to have or know about such things, perhaps forward this request on to them.

No Porn Domain For You...Next!

ICANN, the group that oversees a bunch of Internet-related rules--including the handing out of new top-level domains such as .com and .edu--has voted down a proposal to create a special, super-sexxxy all porn domain, .xxx. According to this writeup, the nay vote is the result of pressures that pulled ICANN out of its normal procedural routine:

Most furious today, though, will be the owner of ICM Registry Stuart Lawley who had spent years and millions of pounds pushing the .xxx domain. Only last month, when the .xxx issue was again delayed at ICANN's meeting in New Zealand, he told us he would continue to answer everyone's concerns. But his sense of injustice was clear: "ICANN have gone well outside their previous procedures for the other sTLDs on this one," he told us. "Given the political posturing I guess it is understandable, yet extremely frustrating. The contract was reviewed by the board during their 18 April call and by inference they must be happy with the terms as they did not ask for any amendments."

Read more here. And to read porn on the Internet? Well, that's what Google is still for, isn't it?

We've Got One Day Here, And Not Another Minute, To See the Famous Sights — We'll Find the Romance and Danger Waiting In It, Beneath the Tulsa Lights

If you're a sailor on leave in an Oklahoma port, there's one more thing you can do:

Oklahoma became the last state to make tattoos legal when the governor signed legislation Wednesday to license and regulate tattoo artists and parlors.

The measure ends a ban on tattooing that had been in effect since 1963.

Before this measure passed, overzealous Okie cops were known to confiscate tattoos at the border.

All Your Calls Belong to Us

Well, well. Turns out the distinction between overseas spying and domestic spying by the NSA is as meaningless as it seemed all along. USA Today explains:

The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA TODAY.

The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans -- most of whom aren't suspected of any crime. This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said in separate interviews.

Sit back and enjoy the spin. You pretty much know it by heart now anyway.

Brian Doherty at L.A. Press Club on the Intoonfadah

Fans of the Los Angeles Press Club, or debate about fanatical pressure groups shutting down free expression, might want to stop by tomorrow night at the L.A. Press Club HQ to debate matters related to what I will always call, in honor of our Tim Cavanaugh, the Intoonfadah.

Extra bonus Reason content: moderated by our prodigal associate editor Matt Welch, nowadays slumming over at a little local rag called the Los Angeles Times. Here's an edited version of the whats, whos, wheres and whens from the L.A. Press Club Web site. As for the how, you'll just have to see for yourself.

The L.A. Press Club is pleased to host a lively panel discussion debating the ongoing fallout of the infamous Danish cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad. Were newspapers prudent or cowardly for refusing to reprint the images? Do smaller publications and websites who reproduced them deserve praise or scorn?......

These questions and more will be pondered on Thursday, May 11, at 7:30 p.m., in the L.A. Press Club's headquarters at 4773 Hollywood Blvd., with a reception beginning at 6:30. Panelists include (but are not limited to):

Eddie Tabash -- Chair of Center For Inquiry-West, constitutional lawyer, and chair of the national legal committee of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. www.tabash.com.

Edina Lekovic -- Communications director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (www.mpac.org).

Brian Doherty -- Senior editor, Reason magazine (www.reason.com), and author of the forthcoming Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.

Moderated by Matt Welch (www.mattwelch.com), assistant editorial pages editor of the Los Angeles Times.
Price: Free for members, $10 for non-members.
RSVP, to: rsvp@lapressclub.org.

Liberation Biology

Something about this doesn't compute. A teacher is fired from her job at a Catholic school because she used in vitro fertilization, and:

Catholic teaching holds that the procedure is morally wrong because it replaces the "natural" conjugal union between husband and wife and often results in destruction of embryos.

This calls for a Catholic joke, yes - but what kind of Catholic joke?

Let Freedom Ringtone!

A dumb-jokey anti-immigration ringtone gets summarily pulled from sale by Cingular (my cellular provider).

The ringtone started with a siren, followed by a male voice saying in a Southern drawl, "This is la Migra," a slang term for the Border Patrol.

"Por favor, put the oranges down and step away from the cell phone. I repeat-o, put the oranges down and step away from the telephone-o. I'm deporting you back home-o," the voice continued.

Hispanic activists called the product racist.

"It's horribly offensive and a disgusting thing," Brent Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, told the newspaper.

Cingular removed the $2.49 ringtone, among thousands available for downloading from its Web site, Tuesday afternoon.

One of the worst qualities of any thought-elite is pushing off the table any cultural expressions, however crude, joking, or idiotic, of popular opinion--and this sort of goofy tortured Spanglish anti-immigration sentiment is quite popular these days.

While I'm more elite than the elites when it comes to freedom to cross national borders and work wherever you can find someone willing to hire you, and stopped finding the likes of the Greaseman (a shock jock from whom I recall a lot of this sort of thing) funny around age 12, I find that the closing off of such expression does bad things to the national cultural conversation--mainly by providing even more reason for petty resentment on the part of those who find that ringtone not only a hoot, but a vital expression of one of those Things You Can't Ringtone in America Anymore.

Obligatory recognition of Cingular's right to sell or not sell whatever ringtone it prefers duly noted.

No Hillary, No Bush, No Problem

Michael Barone applies his vast historical and political knowledge to an interesting subject: political dynasties. Specifically, how many people would vote for Hillary Clinton (or John Ellis Bush) because they liked her husband (brother)? How many would vote against her (him)? And would anyone give half a damn about either of them if they were Hillary Smith or John E. Johnson?

(The "Jeb for president" idea has never made any sense to me. In trial heats, Jeb dramatically underperforms other Republicans with his same level of name recognition, like McCain and Giuliani. He reguarly underpolls Hillary by 10 points or so.)

It's Not Who You Come With, It's Who Takes You Home

A Cape Cod high school is running criminal background checks on prom dates:

Eckert and Roderick are two of at least six [Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School] seniors whose dates cannot attend Saturday night's prom at the Cape Codder Resort in Hyannis because records checks revealed their dates had some type of criminal history...

To purchase tickets, students interested in bringing non-D-Y dates had to submit a consent form signed by both the D-Y student and guest as well as guardians for both. They also had to provide the school with their dates' driver's licenses so photocopies could be made.

This is just common sense: Prom flicks teach us that every good prom ends in murder. Or a successful makeover. Other fun tips for the most romantic night of your life:

In addition to background checks for non-D-Y students, there is a restriction preventing any guests aged 21 or older from attending the prom.... The school also randomly selects students to take an alcohol breath test at the door.

Where Have All the Pundits Gone?

Liberal journalist Gene Lyons has a provocative bit of punditry-cum-wishful thinking at the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. After a tiresome rehashing of Stephen Colbert's tiresome routine from ten days ago Lyons argues that blogs are making celebrity political commentators obsolete.

The brief reign of the celebrity pundit began with cable TV appears to be ending with the Internet. Washington socialites are quickly being replaced in public esteem by politically oriented bloggers like Josh Marshall, Kevin Drum, the inimitable Digby, Glenn Greenwald, Billmon, Atrios and many others... Sure, there's a danger of groupthink. That's true of all mass media. But there's also a fierce independence and an intellectual honesty among the best online commentators that are making Washington courtiers awfully nervous.

Lyons has a point insofar as the bloggers can drive conventional pundits completely, batshit insane. Witness Richard Cohen's pillow-clutching wail about mean liberals emailing him, or Bill O'Reilly's ... ah, just witness Bill O'Reilly.

(Hat tip: Atrios.)

If Only There Were Some Way to Stop Those Nasty Traffickers From Getting All That Money...

The Committee to Regulate and Control Marijuana, which is sponsoring a Nevada initiative that would legalize cultivation, sale, and possession of cannabis, explains how drug czar John Walters is helping to make the case for the initiative, which will appear on the ballot in November.

Does Hating Hip-Hop Mean You're A Racist?

Over at Slate, John Cook wonders why the New York Times's Sasha Frere-Jones seems to think so, as Cook lashes back against the critical backlash against gay singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields for his expressed dislike of most rap and dance-pop and expressed affection for "Zip a Dee Doo Dah."

[Hat tip to Jim Doherty.]

Banning Smoking Could Lead to Banning Smoking

Michael Siegel, an anti-smoking activist whose whither-the-movement blog is must reading for people interested in tobacco policy, starts to see the movement's critics have a point when they decry its prohibitionist tendencies:

When I used to hear smokers' rights groups claim that the anti-smoking movement was really about prohibition, I thought it was complete crap. But within the past few months, I'm starting to see that there is an element of truth to those claims. There is a faction within the tobacco control movement that I believe is motivated primarily by a hate for smokers and nothing short of prohibition will ever satisfy this element....This element now seems to be the driving force, or a major driving force, within the movement. I think, therefore, that it is not inaccurate to state that the anti-smoking movement is now on a path towards advocating prohibition.

Back to Somalia

Violence breaks out in Mogadishu. Reuters reports:

A fourth day of fighting between rival militias in Mogadishu on Wednesday saw the death toll rise to at least 94, after gunmen broke a brief ceasefire to the worst street combat in the Somali capital in years.

The latest battle is the third between gunmen allied to Islamic courts and militia linked to the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism, a coalition of powerful warlords.

Analysts say the upsurge in street battles between the two sides suggests the failed Horn of Africa state is becoming a new proxy battleground for Islamist militants and the United States, which is widely believed to be funding the warlords.

According to Reuters, the warlords adopted their coalition's name "in what some say was an effort to win support from the United States." Agence France Presse has more on America's involvement:

While not providing arms, the United States has given money to warlords fighting Mogadishu's powerful Islamic courts, which are thought to be harboring extremists including some affiliated with Al-Qaeda, officials said....

"Basically we're paying militias to pick people off," [one U.S.] official said, giving an unusually blunt description of the program, which is coordinated by the US embassy in Kenya.

The embassy in Nairobi refused to comment but senior officials there acknowledged contacts with the warlords while stressing the US outreach was broad and not limited to just them.

Say, boy, where ya comin' from? Where'd ya get that point of view?

Well, points for trying. Neil Shah at The Village Voice makes an argument that you don't hear many other rock critics making - that Axl Rose's laziness and refusal to release a damn album already is, in itself, a work of art.

Axl's idiosyncratic career confronts us with a kind of paradox: If being a rebel is your job, why work when you don't want to?

This sounds like overthinking. Rose's stage-and-recording studio fright doesn't seem as rebellious as it does scared. He's made attempts at comebacks before and gotten winded or scared before he had to meet the audience. At this point, I suspect Axl is less like Andy Kaufman - an artist who willfully pissed off his audience - and more like Syd Barrett.

Bailey on Boob Tube Today at 10:45AM ET

Reason's Ron Bailey will be talking on CNBC about oil--black gold, Texas tea, etc--this morning around 10:45AM ET.

Read Ron's senses-shattering, shibboleth-smashing May cover story about "Peak-Oil Panic" here.

And subscribe to the print edition already. Less than $20 a year gets you 11 ishes of the award-winning mag of "Free Minds and Free Markets." And the satisfaction of helping to support Ron Bailey's bizarre vanity license plate fetish and the rest of us in our eternal quest to bring a libertarian perspective to bear on politics, culture, and ideas.

"Journalists Suck," Say Journalists

The Medill School of Journalism has surveyed reporters from across the land and, surprise: They're not too happy with their profession, and especially unhappy with being criticized.

More than half of the surveyed journalists reported working with "a peer involved in fabrication, plagiarism or other deliberate misconduct," the survey stated. It added that 20% believed such wrong behavior should be punished more rigorously.
"Newspaper journalists say problems in television news, on Web sites and blogs, and even in tabloids and shopper publications all have a deleterious effect on the credibility of newspaper journalists," the report stated. "In addition, almost one in five say that criticism of media by politicians erodes readers' trust."

Hey, politicians have their own stuff to worry about.

Vouchertown USA

Cory Booker - the subject of my article today - has been elected mayor of Newark, N.J. in a landslide with 72% of the vote, three times as much as Deputy Mayor Ronald L. Rice. The story is a little less clear for the rest of his ticket. Central ward candidate Dana Rone and east ward candidate Agustor Amado have won their seats, and Luis Quintana and Mildred Crump Carlos Gonzalez have won at-large seats. But Ras Baraka, who ran on the other slate, has won the third at-large seat, and there will be run-offs in the west and south wards. Booker and his school choice slate have won big, but it's not a landslide. They'll have to wait for June 13 to see if they have a 4-4 split or a 6-2 majority.

"Flying Robot Attack 'Unstoppable': Experts"

The headline was just too delicious to resist, in the first place. But this story--about the terroristic possibilities of remote-controlled light aircraft--really does make one wonder about the multitude of dreadful and more-or-less unstoppable things that Our Hidden Enemies Everywhere could be doing to us daily, and yet never seem to do. As the story points out, "Security services the world over have been considering the problem for several years, but no one has yet come up with a solution." Nor, it seems, has anyone yet come up with a problem.

Extropy Institute Closes

After 17 years, the Extropy Institute (the initial pioneer in transhumanist thinking) is shutting down. Extropy was a neologism devised by founder Max More as the opposite of entropy, i.e., extropy signifies increasing order rather than increasing disorder. While the Institute formally eschewed any specific political philosophy, it attracted a lot of supporters with a distinctly libertarian bent.

While transhumanism is hardly a household word, it has gained sufficient prominence among intellectuals and policy wonks to have been denounced by scholar Francis Fukuyama, author of Our Posthuman Future, as the world's "most dangerous idea." The Institute has announced a strategic plan aimed at promoting the "proactionary principle" which is conceived of as the policy opposite of the "precautionary principle" The precautionary principle can be accurately summed up as "never do anything for the first time," so perhaps the proactionary principle can be condensed to "move forward and allow human creativity to solve new problems as they arise."

The Extropy Institute did hard ground-breaking intellectual work toward fostering a future in which humanity will be able to transcend the limits placed on us by our genes and our environment. Good luck to founders Max More and Natasha Vita-More and Tom Bell in their new campaign to promote the proactionary principle.

Disclosure: I have never been a member of the Extropy Institute, but perhaps my fellow-traveling tendency is best exemplified by the fact that the vanity plate on my car reads "EXTROPY."

Gay Car On the Freeway, or, the Eternal Return of Glen A. Larson

Knight Rider fans, rejoice: Harvey Weinstein has delivered you from exile. Michael and KITT will ride again, on the big screen, in search of whatever it was they were always in search of. I never actually watched an episode of Knight Rider, being at best a lukewarm fan of David Hasselfhoff (or as a high school friend of mine used to call him, in a South Jersey drawl you had to hear to appreciate, "Harry Hasselhoff"). But in one of Suck.com's finest hours, Mark Dery decrypted the sexual orientation of HAL-9000 (it's hard to believe that as recently as the late 1990s there was still great sport to be had in spotting unnoticed gay subtexts); and in the process he gave a very special supporting role to Michael Knight's longtime electronic companion:

But even if we "prove" that HAL is gay, what's the significance of outing a fictional supercomputer, outside the context of extreme sports for semioticians? Most obviously, gay machines such as HAL and his descendants—among them KITT, the campy RoboCar in Knight Rider (of whom The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows straightfacedly writes, "It was love at first sight between Michael [Knight] and KITT," who was "peevish, a bit haughty, but totally protective" (of his hunky rider)—prop up the sagging machismo of male heroes whose derring-do, in the Computer Age, consists largely of sitting in a chair, pushing buttons. This is the glaring irony that renders Star Trek's Perma-Prest Captain Picard and his beefy sidekick, Lieutenant Riker—torchbearers for a rock-ribbed masculinity—unintentionally funny: In the final analysis, they're overgrown gameboys in pantsuits, jabbing at touchscreens in an earth-toned rec room. Prone to hissy fits, sissified machines such as C-3PO, Star Wars's fussy, high-strung Felix to R2-D2's Oscar (with the femme-butch subtext that implies), reaffirm the rugged manliness of these armchair adventurers, by contrast.

Glen A. Larson, one hopes, will continue to be our chief resurrector of homoerotic subtexts. When will we see the Magnum PI movie, with its mustachioed hero tooling around in his short-shorts and Hawaiian shirt with his pals T.C., Rick, and the fussbudget Higgins? For that matter, when will William Daniels portray an Adams again? He's never played Henry.

Nancy Pelosi: Greatest Living American

Why not? It's not much more ridiculous a judgment than the one handed down by Slate's John Dickerson, who thinks Pelosi will save the GOP from itself in midterm elections.

Pelosi announced that her new Democratic majority would also launch a series of investigations reaching all the way back into the first months of the Bush administration. Across the country, vulnerable Republican candidates are saying thank you to Pelosi. The GOP congressional majorities may now be secure.

They'll be secure because "Republican claims that Democrats would launch a wave of investigations like the GOP-style ones of the 1990s suddenly seem credible" and Republican Senate campaign honcho Elizabeth Dole had been warning about Democrats' lust for investigations in a fundraising e-mail. However, so what? Matthew Yglesias ably explodes Dickerson's thesis.

For one thing, Dole's letter was a fundraising mailing going out to hard-core Republicans and trying to motivate them. These are presumably some of the 30 percent or so of Americans who approve of George W. Bush job performance. And, of course, it makes perfect sense for GOP fundraisers to appeal to those people. But it also makes perfect sense for Pelosi to appeal to the much larger group of people who disapprove of Bush's performance.

Maybe I'm biased because the thought of a Bush impeachment or censure or hog-tying is really the only thing that could motivate libertarians to vote this fall. As Yglesias points out, libertarians who are fed up with the Bush administration are, for once, on the popular side of a political question. Dickerson argues that the "Contract With America never mentioned investigating Bill Clinton," which is pretty much a technicality - Republicans spent much of 1994 agitating for Whitewater hearings. The voters of 1994 knew what their Congress would do to Clinton if they voted Republican. Once a decade or so, voters are willing to roll back the imperial presidency and empower the Congress to take the executive down to size. If the opposition party runs away from a fight over presidential power because they're scared to investigate it, that party deserves to lose.

Al Qaeda: Bombing in Baghdad?

The Captain's Quarter's blog, and other parts of the pro-war blogosphere, are thrilled over this just-translated document on the CENTCOM site, supposedly a high-level Al Qaeda man lamenting their lack of success and small number of men and lack of serious munitions in Iraq. It is being read as proof that the U.S. is winning/has already won in Iraq, insurgency be damned.

They may or may not be right, as Mencken would say to angry correspondents. But a couple of points that came to mind are, 1) the insurgency in Iraq is made up of more than just Al Qaeda--Al Qaeda may indeed be a small percentage of it--and 2) that most of this document is written as if actually taking control of significant parts of Baghdad is the goal that AQ is failing at. Alas for the U.S., the insurgency doesn't have to ever actually capture Baghdad to any real degree to continue to make normal life impossible there or in other parts of Iraq. And if normal life remains impossible to a large degree, the U.S.'s goals have failed as much as have Al Qaeda's.

Hookergate Redux; Gratuitous Marx Reference

The fine-feathered folks at Sploid have a nice tease up about "Hookergate," the brewing prostitution-bribery scandal that involves already disgraced-and-convicted congressman Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, dismissed CIA chief Porter Goss, and now the CIA's number three honcho, Kyle "Dusty" Foggo.

I can't do justice to Sploid's diamond-hard prose, which squeezes in more innuendo and links into a few small paragraphs than is humanly possible--it's like Superman took a binful of coal and smushed into one baseball-sized gleaming diamond. So go read it here and follow its links to the outer limits of credibility on the World Wide Web.

In the meantime, let's be grateful for a scandal that may be lacking in any sort of definitive verification but more than makes up for it with incredibly idiotic nicknames for the principals.

And for a [fill-in-the-blank]-gate scandal in which the Watergate building actually plays a leading role. Which nicely closes the circle on one of the most-overused expressions in American politics and culture. Finally, at long last, we can move on to another designated suffix for scandal.

Wasn't it Marx who said that history repeats itself, first as a serious made-for-TV movie and then as an episode of Three's Company? How could a man so right about that been so wrong about the subjective theory of value? Didn't the guy ever go to a garage sale, fer chrissakes?

South-of-the-Border's Gonna Do It Again

The Chicago Tribune's Steve Chapman has written a sharp column about the recent marches for immigrants' rights. My favorite part comes after some march-bashing quotes from Trent Lott and Pat Buchanan, one of whom complains that some of the demonstrators carried "foreign flags":

Conservatives defend the Confederate flag as a legitimate way for Southerners to honor their heritage. It doesn't occur to Lott and Buchanan that maybe immigrants brandish the flags of their mother countries for similar reasons, not out of contempt for America.

(Minor caveat: Chapman seems confused about who raised the foreign-flag complaint, Lott or Buchanan.)

CASA Crapola

Rebecca Goldin of the invaluable bullshit-detecting outfit STATS has a great deconstruction of the most recent crapola study emanating from the hallowed halls of CASA, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse that's housed at Columbia University (and is to solid, factual research what the Columbia's legendarily losing football teams of the '80s were to that sport). CASA recently got headlines by suggesting, in Goldin's summary, "that almost half of the industry's revenue (almost 50 million dollars per year) results from abusive and dependent drinking, and minors consuming alcohol."

Goldin downs a shot and then lays into the CASA numerology:

Here are a few numbers that don't make sense: according to their estimate, over 20 billion drinks are consumed by underage drinkers. STATS was unable to reconstruct this number. According to their own analysis, 47.1 percent of kids age 12-20 are "drinkers", that is, they consume at least one drink per month. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, there are 35.8 million people in the United States in this age range; of these, just under 17 million drank in the past month. The average number of drinks/month, according to the data given in this article, is 35.2 per person per month--or about 422 per year. This amounts to about 422 times 17 million, or just under 7.2 billion drinks per year, far from the 20 billion reported in their table, and used for their analysis. For these same kids to consume 20 billion drinks, each teen would have to consume over 1,000 drinks per year, or almost three drinks a day!

That's only part of the problem with CASA's work. For more Foster Brooks-inspired math, go here.

And for various Reason takedowns of previous CASA studies, go here and here and here.

Friday, August 29: A Date That Will Live In Infamy

If you've ever entered into an argument about movie chronology - what year the robots killed Bill and Ted, who was the oldest kid at Hogwarts - witness The Movie Timeline.

So here's the pitch: The Movie Timeline is the history of everything, taken from one simple premise: that everything you see in the movies is true - the real mixes with the fictitious, so long as it's reported in a movie somewhere.

It can be jarring to see "John Mitchell, John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman are found guilty on all counts" pegged the day after "Starsky and Hutch take down a drug dealer" - but hey, they both happened in movies. The site's incomplete now, but the creators are setting to re-launch it with a new database. (Oh, and Friday, August 29 was the day Skynet destroyed civilization.)

Supportive Like a Fox?

Drudge reports that Rupert Murdoch is on board to host a Hillary Clinton fundraiser on behalf of News Corp. Yes, the very linchpin of Hillary's old right-wing conspiracy. Yes, politics is politics, and entertainment is entertainment, and business is business, and if you might end up president, people want to be on your side.

Will Muslim Women Defeat Islamofascism?

I get quite intemperate during alcohol-fueled arguments about how backward cultures that subjugate women need to be "smashed" -- preferably as Marx predicted ("The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization."), but not only. Of course, I am accused of being anachronistic -- that there were good explanations for why women's freedom was curtailed by earlier primitive cultures, not least of which was the desire of men not to work and provide for children not their own. That's true, but so what now? Two centuries after the Enlightenment finally began the process of emancipating women there is no excuse for denying them dignity and worth equal to that enjoyed by men. Cultures that refuse to recognize the autonomy of women are by definition backward.

Anyway, the foregoing outburst was inspired by an article in the Toronto Star about a recent talk by Princeton University Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis in which he argued that Muslim women are the hope for finally modernizing those societies.

I firmly believe that women are our best hope in dealing with the Muslim world, because they have so much to gain from modernization...

[W]omen have made enormous progress in some countries, although by no means all, and that is in education. And here, one of the encouraging features of the situation is that one of the countries where women have done best is in Iraq. Now, don't misunderstand me, I'm not speaking of rights -- the word "rights" has no meaning at all in that kind of society -- I'm speaking of opportunity, of access. Women in Iraq -- and this goes back a long way; it started under the monarchy and continued under the various succeeding regimes -- had access to higher education to a degree without parallel in the Arab world, with the possible exception of Tunisia. They could go to university. They could enter the professions.

This, I feel, is a very hopeful sign for the future. Women generally do not receive the brain-deadening indoctrination that passes for education in many of these countries, because they're not thought important enough to be given it.

This does have a beneficial result, and I would say in many respects women are the greatest hope for much of the Islamic world, notably -- but by no means exclusively -- in Iraq.

Whole thing here.

Thought Experiment: What Can't a Kennedy Get Away With?

A little birdy (no, not one of LBJ's daughters) sent me this Goofus and Gallant comparison regarding the Kennedys.

The first bit is from the Wash Post and details just how little effect Rep. Patrick Kennedy's recent drug-and/or-booze-enhance crash is likely to have on the his political future:

Now the good news for Kennedy: The voters of Rhode Island -- including [Michael] Rossi [a Pawtucket nurse] -- also don't seem to care.

"It's a separate issue," said Rossi, who said he will remain a Kennedy supporter. "He's got maybe an alcohol problem. That doesn't make him a bad representative."

Similar stories were told again and again across Kennedy's district, which covers a swath of suburbs, strip malls and run-down mill towns around the northern and eastern borders of the state. From Pawtucket to Woonsocket, the six-term representative's sins were often forgiven almost before they were admitted, and by people who said they were motivated by his hard work, his power or just the traditional indulgence granted to Kennedys in this region.

More here.

The second bit is from Reason's shockingly--read: "as refreshing as a piece of Orbit gum"--foul-mouthed 1997 interview with Drew Carey, in which Ohio's funniest comedian since Rep. Jim Traficant tells a really dirty Kennedy joke:

Reason: Prohibition also leads to another topic: the Kennedys. In an earlier draft of your book, you had an entire chapter devoted to that brood. What is it that you hate about them?

Carey: There were a lot of questions about language in the book. I said, "Look, give me some of the bad language, and I'll take out the whole Kennedy chapter." Plus, the publisher wasn't sure it would pass the lawyers. I read in USA Today that a Kennedy has never lost an election in Massachusetts. I wrote about what it would take for a Kennedy to lose one: They bust into a bank, pistol whip the manager, fuck the teller up the ass, take turns posing for pictures. And nobody would say a thing: "Those Kennedy's are great, aren't they? I can't believe a Kennedy fucked me up the ass!" They can get away with anything.

More here.

Howard Stern--remember him?--on the Kennedy Clan's women (scroll down).

Update: Patrick Kennedy Injured By Flying Hammer

Tip: Reader Paul Strigler, who notes, "I don't think this requires any comments."

Real Patriots Go Bareback

In a heroically incoherent column in today's Wall Street Journal, German politico Silvana Koch-Mehrin complains that her country is caught between falling birth rates and an "expensive social welfare system." The solution, she argues, is to expand that social welfare system and introduce "country-wide day-care infrastructure," thus encouraging women to get knocked up at a pace Germans can be proud of. But there is a catch:

...the current passionate debate about how to raise the birth rate reveals a rather conservative streak in Germany's society. The focus is solely on why women fail to deliver the next generation of tax payers.

That does sound creepily sexist. Should a progressive nation be treating its women as factories for taxpayers? Sure, explains Koch-Mehrin, as long as we remember that men are people-producers too:

There is usually no mention at all of the (lacking) contribution from men. Luckily for them, they are not accused of being childless. In 21st century Germany, childbearing has become a women-exclusive topic.

Problem solved! When society is careful to "accuse" both men and women of daring to be childless, we'll be well on our way to the ideal state. (Like France, according to Koch-Mehrin.) And as Will Wilkinson has pointed out, why should natalist policy makers restrict their concerns to quantity and not quality? If making sure appropriate numbers of children are produced is an excuse for government intervention, what aspect of a child's development is not? They'll have to be good revenue producers, after all, to pay for all of that daycare.

The Cuban People's Revolution Has Truly Succeeded...

...Otherwise, how could an illegitimate soldier's son who barely grew up in the lap of luxury and didn't even manage to wash out of Major League Baseball make it on Forbes' list of the richest world leaders three years in a row? Congratulations, Fidel.

Fair and balanced: Castro, a river to his people, says it's all a crock—he's poor as a churchmouse.

The Scene of the Cigarette Conspiracy

Thirty state attorneys general are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to stop a federal lawsuit by three small tobacco companies that have challenged the cigarette cartel created by the 1998 agreement settling state litigation against the leading cigarette makers. The plaintiffs argue that state laws implementing the so-called Master Settlement Agreement, which require nonparticipating companies to either join the agreement or make escrow payments designed to erase their competitive advantage as nonsignatories, impinge on the federal government's power to regulate interstate commerce and violate federal antitrust law.

The cigarette companies filed their lawsuit in New York because that's where the MSA was negotiated. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit approved the venue and agreed that it was appropriate to name all the attorneys general personally, even though most of the challenged legislative action occurred outside of New York. The attorneys general want the Supreme Court, which apparently has never addressed an issue like this, to overrule the 2nd Circuit. If it does, that would be the end of this lawsuit. The Competitive Enterprise Institute's lawsuit challenging the MSA, which was filed in Louisiana and names that state's attorney general, presumably would be unaffected.

[Thanks to CEI's Christine Hall-Reis for the tip.]

Have You Heard the Good News About Iraq?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture demands its employees make sure they hype how great things are going in Iraq in every speech. The Washington Post's Al Kamen mocks them for it. An excerpt:

Let's say you're talking about U.S. agricultural productivity. Try this: "I'd like to take a moment to talk about a nation that is just now beginning to rebuild its own agricultural production.

"Iraq is part to the 'fertile crescent' of Mesopotamia," the sample script says. "It is there, in around 8,500 to 8,000 B.C., that mankind first domesticated wheat, there that agriculture was born. In recent years, however, the birthplace of farming has been in trouble."

Probably want to pause here and give the audience a chance to catch its breath.

The D.C. Agriculture boys could emulate SCTV's old "Farm Film Report" fellows, Big Jim McBob and Billy Sol Hurok, and report that at the very least, things in Iraq are "blowing up real good."

Who's a Bigger Menace: Rush Limbaugh or Patrick Kennedy?

A reader who objected to my recent column about Rush Limbaugh and Richard Paey writes:

Can't wait to read your first column condemning the special treatment Patrick [Kennedy] received [from] the police and calling for a 25 year imprisonment [a la] poor Mr. Paey. Do you think that the DC DA will hold a press conference and announce that doctor shopping is being investigated and that he will demand Patrick's medical records to determine the source and quantity of the drugs? Should the MSM media, print and TV, echo the accusations on front pages and in prime time? Will they? Or will Patrick get a pass? Will liberal hypocrisy win out?

The short answer is yes, I guess. Doesn't liberal hypocrisy always win out?

But to clarify my own position: I did not say Limbaugh belonged in prison. I said neither he nor Richard Paey did, and I expressed the (probably vain) hope that the talk radio host's brush with the war on drugs would lead him to spend some air time criticizing it and speaking out on behalf of its other victims.

Be that as it may, what Patrick Kennedy did last week was worse, in terms of its potential impact on other people, than anything Rush Limbaugh has been accused of. The Rhode Island congressman initially blamed his car accident—in which he drove carelessly, nearly collided head-on with a police car, and crashed into a traffic barrier near the Capitol in the wee hours of the morning—on a combination of the sleep medication Ambien and the antihistamine Phenergan, which he said he'd been prescribed for gastrointestinal symptoms. Later he announced that he was re-entering treatment for addiction to painkillers, which suggested he also was under the influence of narcotics at the time of the crash. He denied drinking that night, but at least one witness contradicted him. In short, his behavior was reckless and put other people in danger, and there's little question that someone who was not a member of Congress would have faced charges as a result.

By contrast, Limbaugh's drug use did not (so far as I know) get him into any car crashes, and he was highly productive during the period when he was popping hydrocodone and oxycodone. I don't know whether Kennedy's narcotic habit impaired his productivity, but if it did it the rest of us probably can count that as a blessing. In any case, I'd say Kennedy's actions made him an appropriate target of law enforcement, whereas Limbaugh's did not.

Having said that, I would be surprised to hear that Kennedy has ever recommended the routine incarceration of drug users, as Limbaugh has, although I'm sure the congressman supports drug prohibition generally. Those who say Limbaugh's critics keep harping on decade-old comments have a point: Drug policy has never been a big issue for Limbaugh. But if Limbaugh's views about the war on drugs have changed in recent years, why has he never bothered to mention it? His recent comment about medical marijuana suggests his sympathies are still with the drug warriors, and unless he says otherwise that remains a fair assumption.

Communists Kill Marriages with Eminent Domain

Divorce fever sweeps a Chinese village:

Farmer Yan Shihai was happily married for more than 30 years. Then late last year, seemingly out of the blue, the 57-year-old grandfather and his loving wife got a divorce.

Within months, all three of his adult children and their spouses also split up. So did almost every other married person in Yan's village of 4,000 -- an astounding 98% of Renhe's married couples officially parted, according to the local government....But instead of tension or tears, the couples waiting in line at the local registry to end their marriages were practically jolly. They believed they were taking advantage of a legal loophole that allowed them to get an extra apartment.

The backstory: The Chinese government has been feeding its construction boom by seizing farmland, and "the villagers figured that if they were going to lose the land that had supported them for generations, they should at least try to get a better deal....As they understood the compensation deal, each married couple would receive a small two-bedroom apartment in return for their land and farmhouse. Those divorced would get a one-bedroom apartment each. The villagers figured that would be a better deal, that they could live in one apartment and make a little extra income from selling or renting out the extra one."

Once the authorities figured out what was going on, they told the divorcing villagers they'd have to pay for the extra apartments if they wanted them. But they didn't give back the farmland. In the meantime, a bunch of those fake divorces turned real.

Virginity Pledges Broken Half The Time (And That's Just Those Who'll Admit It)

When I was twelve or thirteen during a very emotional religious revival I walked up to the altar of a Baptist Church in southwestern Virginia and pledged never to take a drink of alcohol. By the time I was a senior in high school that pledge had been long broken. In recent years, Christian sex educators have employed a similar strategy of extracting pledges from teenagers that they would refrain from sex before marriage. According to a new study by Harvard researcher Janet Rosenbaum, such virginity pledges have had about as much staying power as my promise to abstain from drinking Lagavulin. The San Franciso Chronicle reports:

Rosenbaum found that 52 percent of those who said they had signed virginity pledges had had sex within a year. Additionally, 73 percent of those who told the first survey that they had taken a pledge but later had sex denied making such a promise when they were surveyed a second time.

"This may indicate that they are not that closely affiliated with the pledge," Rosenbaum said.

The adolescents also were unreliable in reporting their sexual experiences, Rosenbaum said. Almost one-third of non-virgins in the first survey who later took a virginity pledge said in the next survey that they had never had sex.

Let's hope that when the teens break their pledge that they will have the good sense to use contraception. (Just to be clear--I have nothing against asking for virginity pledges, but it's not a substitute for teaching kids what they need to do to prevent pregnancies should they change their minds about their pledges.)

Steven Spielberg Presents "The Eternal Arab"

Give Andrew Klavan some credit - it takes guts to write this in the LA Times and expect to ever get invited to any party ever again.

We need some films celebrating the war against Islamo-fascism in Afghanistan and Iraq - and in Iran as well, if and when that becomes necessary.

It takes guts, yes, but not reason. Klavan's argument is basically that Hollywood should - nay, must - return to the glory days of "Action in the North Atlantic" and "The Fighting Seabees." Not only would a wave of War On Terror propaganda films give the smart-ass college students of the future something to make fun of between Chinese classes and English lit (English 101: Darkness and Light in the Prose of Kaavya Viswanathan). They would stiffen our national backbone and gin us up to thwart the greatest enemy in the history of the universe - the Islamofascists. And while we're at it, let's cut it out with those gloomy movies, too.

Since the '60s, we have had, it seems, an endless string of war movies, from "Dr. Strangelove" to "Syriana," in which the United States is depicted as wildly aggressive and endlessly corrupt - which, in fact, it's not; which, in fact, it never has been.

I'm not even sure that the laws of physics allow us to mock a statement like that. Let's leave it for those future college students.

Klavan's chief problem, apart from his general lunacy, is his misunderstanding of America's foreign policy challenges. He believes the "outcome of the struggle" (the war v. "Islamofascism") is "much in doubt," and that it's potentially a greater challenge than World War II. That's an assessment at odds with our own government's. To fight the "good war," the government massively raised taxes, conscripted able-bodied men, rationed food and other goods, curtailed civil liberties, and basically demanded daily, grave sacrifices from all Americans. In order to fight the war on terror, our government's done none of this (apart from the civil liberties thing). There's no enemy army launching invasions or defending turf. There's no political leader who can be driven to surrender. The closest thing we have to a strategy is building up and democratizing Middle East nations, winning their citizens over from radical Islam to secular, West-friendly Islam. How would a wave of U.S. propaganda films, crafted to get Americans' blood pumping about Islam and terrorism, go over in occupied Iraq?

The Surgeon General Warns You that Public Urination Is Harmful To Our Health...

Well, not the Surgeon General (a.k.a. Doctor Who?) actually, but Rogier van Bakel over at the always-innerestin' and informative blog Nobody's Business.

Van Bakel charges uber-blogger Eugene Volokh with making "a piss-poor argument" on the topic of public-sphere smoking vs. urination:

Even the usually sane law professor Eugene Volokh has his off-days--such as when he wonders if smoking on the street isn't just as bad as peeing on the street. "Both smoking and urine creates smells that many people find offensive," Volokh writes, and then he entertains the idea that maybe smoking outdoors should be banned, analogous to public urination. Is he playing devil's advocate? Here's hoping.

Van Bakel, channeling the likes of James Dean, Richard Gere, and Billy Carter, argues that public urination and public smoking are two very different beasts, writing in part, "Public urination necessitates exposing oneself (an arrestable offense). Smokers, by and large, manage to keep it in their pants."

More, including links to the original Volokh post and much, much more, here.

Public Service Recognition Weak

Did you know that last week was Public Service Recognition Week, which culminated in a giveaway of crap like patriotic frisbees and pins on the Mall in Washington, DC (providing a perfect in its own way counterpoint to last Monday's sick-out by illegal immigrants)? Yes, yes, I know, every week is public service recognition week.

Bureaucrash, an entertaining libertarian guerrilla theatre-ish group (I can't wait to see their street version of Conquest of the Tax Code of The Planet of the Apes), documented the event. Check out the photos here. And then buy one of the group's inspired T-shirts here.